Gilbert Levin is a man on a mission. For the Viking missions to Mars in 1976, he was the person who designed one of the experiments that searched for life. The results came back positive. So positive, in fact, that the famed Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan called him at the time to congratulate him.
But another experiment on the Viking missions found no organics in the soil, and so Levin’s experiment could not be confirmed. Had there been organics detected in the soil, it is highly likely that, in 1976, there would have been an announcement from NASA that life had been detected on Mars.
Levin has long believed that life on Mars had, in fact, been detected by his experiment in 1976, and that it was the test for organics that was flawed, not his experiment. Now, if the new Mars rover, Curiosity, using more sophisticated instruments, detects organics in the soil, he wants his conclusion revisited. This was reported at New Scientist earlier this month:
If . . . Curiosity finds carbon-based molecules in the Martian soil, Levin – who led the “labelled release” experiment on NASA’s 1976 Viking mission – will demand that his refuted discovery of life on Mars is reinstated.
Levin also had some recent backup for his claim that his experiment detected life on Mars. The following item comes from Discovery News, April 12, 2012:
New analysis of 36-year-old data [from the Viking missions], resuscitated from printouts, shows NASA found life on Mars, an international team of mathematicians and scientists conclude in a paper published this week.
The data referred to is data generated by Levin’s “labelled release” (LR) experiment.
Here’s New Scientist again:
[Levin’s] experiment mixed Martian soil with a nutrient containing radioactive carbon. The idea was simple: if bacteria were present in the soil, and metabolised the nutrient, they would emit some of the digested molecules as carbon dioxide. The experiment did indeed find that carbon dioxide was released from the soil, and that it contained radioactive carbon atoms.
Levin’s team went out and bought champagne. He even took a congratulatory phone call from Carl Sagan. However, the party was ruined by a sister experiment. Viking’s Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) was looking for carbon-based molecules and found none.
The kicker is that Curiosity has a new-fangled GCMS for detecting organics–one considered to be vastly more sensitive and accurate than the GCMS devices that were on the Viking landers.
Will Curiosity bring about the resurrection of Gilbert Levin’s claim that his experiment found life on Mars in 1976? And if Curiosity finds organics in Martian soil, does it also have the capability of rerunning an updated version of Levin’s experiment? And will we ever be the same if life, over the next year or two, is in fact found there?
What a disorienting time to be alive (something akin to living in the same decade Copernicus compellingly worked out that Earth is not, in fact, at the center of the universe). The mind expands and reels. Where is our species going?